Saturday 9.30am – people will get out of bed for Emily Perkins. A healthy crowd filled the YMCA venue and they were treated to a great session. Novelist Rachael King was the perfect host (Emily’s exact contemporary) and it was a conversation between two fine New Zealand writers.
Both Emily and Rachael were born in 1970, and coincidentally it is the only year ever mentioned in The Forrests. Throughout the novel, Emily doesn’t mention the year, or get too absorbed in period detail – it is a story of feelings and relationships, and gives only clues to the passing of time. Otherwise it could be:
Then Dorothy strapped her hovercraft to her back …
The move from London to Auckland has an impact on Emily’s work. She felt on a high from lushness and colour, and the seasonal change from a sludgy wet winter to spring “everything crisps up and becomes tingly”.
Rachael pointed how well Emily evokes an atmosphere, and the centrality of language. Expressions like “prinkling” and unusual words just came to her:
I wanted the language to have the texture that life has … I wanted to be open to the weirdness of language.
One of the titles that influenced her was The Ask by Sam Lipsyte with its exhilarating “open loose wave” of language.
The discussion turned to Emily’s attention to detail:
I do love the writing that’s about things … the concrete surrounds of our lives … paying attention in an acute way to daily domestic details is of value. We spend most of our time being very ordinary.
One of the lovely things we can do as fiction writer is bend time.
The structure of the novel is interesting:
Things do accrue and add up and come to a different kind of significance.
Emily noted that in life anything can happen, and that we in Christchurch know that better than most …
It’s a discontinuous narrative, because “our lives aren’t a narrative”. Philosophers suggest there are two camps – those who see life as a continuous narrative with a trajectory, and those who say “Was that me then?” Certain things we experience very fully, and then shed. Lives not lived also provide narrative tension.
Emily discussed the novel’s origins. The Forrests began as a 50,000 word MA thesis, with no chapter breaks. It was then expanded and she had to decide between the primacy of structure and another unusual, experimental element she wouldn’t tell us about (because she may use it in another work). She chose structure, and made it easier to connect with.
Taking questions from the floor, I asked about the novel’s ecstatic ending. She mentioned Damien Wilkins, who said endings should “turn up the volume”.
This was a brilliant session – the only improvement would have been making it a two hour gig with Emily and Rachael swapping roles halfway through. They were both brilliant at getting to the core of creativity.